The Clinton Saga Continues: What She Taught Obama
The resilience of Bill and Hillary Clinton, in Democratic politics and American life in general, was never in doubt. His laudable but ambitious post-presidential agenda, coupled with her purposefully pre-presidential career, promised years of Clinton headlines. Even after a (close) primary loss, our political class was not ready for the Clintons to leave the stage. Not the press, which loves covering the Clintons; not the Clinton network, whether seeking "catharsis" or power, and not, apparently, the rest of us — the public — which groans at the news but consumes it anyway. We seek out everything from the bouts of cable speculation on "what she wants" to highbrow analysis of a long-finished campaign in the latest magazine exclusive. That’s today’s titillation — a long, well-written and well-researched post-mortem from The Atlantic’s Joshua Green.
The promotional material promises an article that "reveals the backstabbing and conflicting strategies that produced an epic meltdown." Using internal memos and a few stray emails, the article delivers all the turmoil and muddled strategies. (Good summary here.) Green does not come close to proving, however, that nasty infighting caused Clinton’s loss. Like most campaign dissection, the piece is so far into the weeds that it misses the big, substantive problems that felled the front-runner. These are obvious — but since this is now so far from the current conventional wisdom, here are two big points:
She voted for the war. This is the key factor in the 2008 campaign. If she had voted against the war, with all other things being equal, she would have certainly won the nomination. Instead, she ran as a the most unapologetic war supporter in a field where every other single candidate had either renounced war support, or announced opposition before it began. The article briefly covers how Clinton’s advisers fought over whether to cede "the Iraq issue":
Penn was practically the only Clinton adviser eager to push the Iraq issue; the rest believed it was a debate Clinton would lose. The fact that Edwards had apologized for having voted for the war resolution further isolated her. Penn insisted that an apology would be “a sign of weakness,” and Clinton never seriously entertained the notion. But the lingering contrast with Obama did not favor her, particularly among Iowa’s liberal caucus-goers, and the attacks she did launch only highlighted this fundamental disparity.
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She ran as the experienced establishment. This claim was thin and counterproductive. In a period when disapproval of Washington, and Congress, reached all-time highs, Clinton staked her campaign on Washington experience — which made no political sense. It was also a weak argument on the facts. After all, Clinton had only a relatively few more years in the Senate than Obama, and far less than other senators in the race. In addition, she had less experience as an elected official than Obama and all the other candidates. Any claim to governing "experience" as first lady was never really explained by the campaign.
These are not just historical arguments. Most of these problems are also swirling around Sen. John McCain. The major difference is that he has a better claim to Washington experience, though he still has little background in making executive decisions or military policy. Primaries are not automatically predictive for general elections — because the electorates and scope are so different — but Obama does have some experience beating a famous, pro-war Washington candidate.